Mobile, AL Part II: Day Trip to Pensacola, FL
Pensacola, FL is only about 35 miles from where we were staying in Summerdale, AL, near Mobile. We decided to take a day trip over to the Florida Panhandle to do a little sightseeing.
Margery's online research turned up a lot of things to see in the Pensacola area, but since we were only going there for the day, we decided to concentrate on the Gulf Islands National Seashore because we thought it would provide a good combination of history and nature. Gulf Islands National Seashore runs along the barrier islands off the coasts of western Florida and Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico. For some reason, the islands off the Alabama coast were not included.
Gulf Islands National Seashore has several visitor centers, and we started at the visitor center at the Naval Live Oaks Reservation located on the spit of land along the outer edge of Pensacola Bay. Prior to the start of the use of steel for ships in the 1860s, wood from live oak trees was very desirable for shipbuilding (especially for warships) because of its great strength. The area gets its name from the fact that the live oaks that grew in this area were once set aside for shipbuilding. More about that later.
Much of the strength of live oak comes from the high density of the wood, which is up to 75 pounds per cubic foot - over 30% more than white oak and 70% more than yellow pine. The visitor center has a display with one cubic foot samples of live oak, white oak, and yellow pine that you can lift with pulleys to feel the difference in weight.
The Pensacola area was first explored in 1513 by Ponce de Leon, and a settlement was established there in 1559 making it the first European settlement in the continental United States. However, the settlement was never able to fully recover from a devastating hurricane that hit later in 1559, and the settlement was abandoned in 1561. Therefore, St. Augustine, FL, which was established in 1565, retains the title as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States. Pensacola lay abandoned for 135 years before it was finally reestablished by the Spanish in 1696.
Pensacola is on the dividing line between what is considered to be French Louisiana and Spanish Florida. Pensacola was occupied by the French in 1719, but the Spanish returned in 1722 after the French left Pensacola following another devastating hurricane. After the French and Indian War, Pensacola became part of the British Colonies in 1763. During the Revolutionary War, Spain reoccupied Pensacola and other parts of Florida, but eventually turned the occupied areas over to the United States in 1818.
The United States established a permanent naval yard in Pensacola in 1824. In 1828, the government established the Naval Live Oak Reservation near the naval yard. It was established not only to protect the live oaks growing there, but also to experiment with the cultivation of live oaks. Today, it is part of the national seashore.
There are several hiking trails in the vicinity of the visitor center, and we decided to take the nature trail. The nature trail winds through a forest made up primarily of magnolias, slash pines, and live oaks. The next photo shows a live oak along the trail.
Many of the large live oaks along the nature trail have plaques in front of them with a photo of that particular tree. The photo has an overlay showing how various shapes would have been cut from the tree to be used for shipbuilding. For example, a rib for the side of a ship's hull might have been cut from a gently curving branch, and an angled support bracket might have been cut from the crotch where a branch met the trunk. The natural direction of the grain helped make the pieces very strong.
One of the most noticeable plants along the trail were the beautyberry shrubs. The magenta berries almost seemed to glow in the bright sun.
We stopped for a photo at the deck at the far end of the nature trail.
We took the trail back to the visitor center that ran closer to Pensacola Bay where we watched a great blue heron hunt for food in the shallows. He would stretch his neck up seemingly to get a better look down into the water ahead of him.
When he would apparently see something, he would crouch down and stalk forward. We watched for several minutes while he repeated those actions, but we never saw him catch anything.
From the Naval Live Oak Reserve, we took the bridge over Santa Rosa Sound to Santa Rosa Island. There is another area of the national seashore at the western tip of the island. On the way we drove through Pensacola Beach with its high-rise hotels and condos and its colorful beach houses.
Once we got to the national seashore, we got to enjoy views of Santa Rosa Sound on one side and the beach along the Gulf of Mexico (shown below) on the other. This area has some of the whitest sand in the world.
There was considerable damage to the road and the infrastructure in this area of the national seashore due to the severity of the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. The road to the western tip of the island had been closed, and it only reopened on March 22, 2009.
At the tip of Santa Rosa Island is Fort Pickens. Following the War of 1812, the United States decided it needed to fortify its major ports. Fort Pickens was completed in 1834 and was one of three forts guarding the entrance to Pensacola Bay. Fort McRee was located on the barrier island opposite Fort Pickens (Perdido Key), and Fort Barrancas was located on the mainland right inside the entrance to the bay.
About 21.5 million bricks were used to construct the walls of 5-sided Fort Pickens. Strength to support the weight of the walls and heavy cannons was achieved by the use of arches. The photo below shows some of the cannon ports along the outer wall. You can see how the walls are a series of arches within arches.
Even though Fort Pickens was deep in the South, it was occupied by Union forces throughout the Civil War. The 15-inch Rodman cannon in the photo below was installed atop the northwestern wall of the fort shortly after the Civil War. The 15-inch Rodman cannon was one of the largest smooth-bore cannons ever used by the U. S. Army (there also was a 20-inch version), and it required a team of 10 men to fire.
The Rodman cannon was developed by a career Army officer by the name of Thomas Rodman. Rodman experimented with new casting methods to overcome previous size limitations of cast iron cannons. Rodman worked with the Fort Pitt Foundry located in our old home town of Pittsburgh to develop the new, larger cannons. Fort Pitt Foundry produced many Rodman cannons during and after the Civil War.
Some cannons during the Civil War were rifled, but most were smooth bore. In the 1870s, rifled cannons became more commonplace making brick forts like Fort Pickens obsolete. The rifled cannons were much more accurate and they could repeatedly hit the same spot on the wall of a fort. Brick construction was not strong enough to withstand repeated hits, so a reinforced concrete battery was built diagonally across the parade ground of Fort Pickins facing the Gulf of Mexico in 1898 as a response to possible threats from the Spanish during the Spanish-American War.
Several other gun batteries were constructed at the end of Santa Rosa Island in the early 1900s. Instead of concentrating them within the walls of the fort, the new batteries were spread out over a wide area. Since naval gunfire had become much more accurate and more powerful, the new system relied on disbursement and concealment for protection.
An interesting feature of Fort Pickens is the gap in the walls at the northwestern corner. This gap was caused when a fire in 1899 reached a powder magazine containing 8,000 pounds of black powder. The explosion showered debris 1½ miles, some of it reaching Fort Barrancas on the mainland across the entrance to the bay.
The famous Apache Indian chief Geronimo, along with several of his warriors, were held prisoner at Fort Pickens from 1886 to 1887. Their families were held at Castillo de San Marcos (renamed Fort Marion by the Americans in 1821) that we visited in St. Augustine, FL in 2007. To read about our 2007 visit to Castillo de San Marcos, click here.
Fort Pickens remained in use through WWII until 1947.
When we left the fort and Santa Rosa Island, we took the long way back to the motor home and followed a route along the Gulf. We wanted to stop for an early dinner at Mikee's Seafood restaurant in Gulf Shores, AL. Mikee's is part of the local chain of Shrimp Basket restaurants that we stopped at in Foley earlier in our stay. Unlike the other Shrimp Basket restaurants, Mikee's has a unique name and maintains a slightly different menu.
Margery had all-you-can-eat fried clams (not available at the other Shrimp Basket restaurants) and Paul had all-you can-eat fried mullet. We both had red potatoes and marinated cabbage (similar to German-style sweet/sour cole slaw). Paul's meal also included corn fritters served in their own cast iron skillet. Dinners at Mikee's run $1 to $2 more than at its sister Shrimp Basket restaurants, but the menu is a little more extensive, and the food is the same high quality.
After dinner, we headed back to the motor home. We enjoyed our time relaxing at Rainbow Plantation so much we extended our stay by a few days. We went back to the Shrimp Basket in Foley for all-you-can-eat shrimp with new friends from the park. It was so good the first time we just had to have more.
In our next post we'll tell where we headed after we left Mobile.